Angry Koreans

Angry Koreans

Korea becomes an "Anger Society", and rage is on full display. That emotion, rather than propelling social change, is being expressed as violence.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

On Nov 15, a forty-something Korean woman living in Incheon west of Seoul ended up in a coma after being stabbed in the neck. The culprit was a 48-year-old male neighbor who had been fighting with her and her husband over noise.

Two months before that, a man in the southern port city of Yeosu used a knife to kill the couple living above him in the apartment building. The given reason was, again, noise.

Complaints over noise in apartment buildings have become a defining feature of the Covid pandemic in Korea. The ubiquitous high-rise residential towers have long been criticized for substandard soundproofing. As more people spend time at home, disputes stemming from unwanted sounds have gone through the roof.

Naturally most Korean media reports have focused on the prevalence of such disagreements between neighbors and the absence of solutions. Apartments are poorly built, and the government is helpless to regulate noise inside private dwellings, so what can anyone do?

But they overlook an underlying cause: anger and people's ability to control it. Koreans are waking up to the fact that they live in a deeply angry society, and outbursts are common. Noise from fellow residents is only one reason to let it all out, sometimes to a homicidal conclusion.

Customer service representatives often bear the brunt of this emotion. Call any Korean hotline, for a company or a government office, and one of the first automated messages one hears is along the line of "the person you will speak to is also someone's child, so please have empathy" as an appeal to keep things in check; or a warning that "this call is being recorded and harassment will be reported to authorities for prosecution". Still, verbal abuse against call center employees is on the rise year after year.

Another phenomenon is customers berating businesses and service workers for the slightest mistake, both off- and online. So-called "black consumers" who exploit merchants have been in the spotlight for leaving bad reviews on the flimsiest of excuses.

A widely publicized case last summer involved someone who ordered food on a food delivery app and demanded refund after claiming that one of the fried shrimps had a strange color to it. The request soon turned into insults, and the restaurant owner reportedly suffered a stroke from the stress and died as a result. Coupang Eats, the delivery app on which the order was placed, has had to announce that it was forming a special task force to protect restauranteurs.

Such behavior is often called gapjil 갑질 in Korean— unjust exercise of power by those in positions of entitlement. But its source may be called anger given the symptoms on display: loud voices, trembling facial features, finger-pointing, unmentionable expletives, negative feedback, and requests for compensation on unreasonable grounds. If you are lucky, you get to see it on fully display in person while eating out or visiting a shop.

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The popular 2014 K-drama Misaeng 미생, about Korean corporate culture, exposed the plight of white-collar workers receiving abuse from their emotionally volatile superiors (many Koreans praised the show for its realism). But even everyday interactions in Korea can subject one to inexplicable rage of others.

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The one and only time I rented an apartment in Seoul, I reached a verbal agreement with the owner that he would pay to have new wallpaper put up in the unit. When time came, he sent me a bill for the cost (about 200,000 KRW or 168 USD).

Although not a significant sum, I reminded him that it was his responsibility to pay, and he started screaming at the top of his lungs. I was a "liar" and a "thief", he yelled. Even his daughter pulling at his arm out of embarrassment couldn't stop him.

He isn't alone to suffer from the condition; since 2015 it's been recognized that some fifty percent of Korean adults are afflicted with an "impulse control disorder"—plainly put, an anger management problem.

It's no new development. Already twenty years ago, in 2002, a Korean translation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh's book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flame was published, selling more than one million copies. That and the 2015 book Am I Now Suffering from Impulse Control Disorder? are considered classics of the genre.

Not that they seem to help. "Anger-driven crime" (bunnohyeong beomjwoe 분노형 범죄) makes the news almost every year. Even before the Coronavirus changed life, in 2013, there was also a murder blamed on noise. 2017 saw two notorious killings; both were attributed to temporary rage of the perpetrators. In 2018 an angry twenty-something and his brother assaulted and stabbed a worker at an internet cafe in Seoul some eighty times over a minor altercation, killing the victim.

In 2019 a man set fire to his apartment and attacked residents who were fleeing. Five died and 13 were injured as a result, and don't be surprised by the motive: he initially said he was angry over unpaid wages.

Some experts attribute the ongoing child abuse epidemic in Korea also to this undercurrent of anger, directed at the most vulnerable.

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An essay in the national daily Donga Ilbo by sociologist professor Koo Jeong-woo cites a study at the Seoul National University to explain the current predicament: 14.7 percent of Koreans experience rage at a level considered to be "serious"; that's apparently six times higher than in Germany.

Koo isn't alone in ringing the alarm bell. Ryu Chang-hyeon, president of the Korea Association for the Management of Anger (KAMA) sees a culturalist reason (yes, this organization is real).

"Koreans don't solve problems through conversation" and "eruption of anger is rationalized as normal or manly", Ryu argues. He uses as an example the common behavior of Korean men who become intoxicated in public. For them verbally abusing others is par fo the course, and yet this doesn't always get called out by those around them.

Lately anger-driven crime has earned an additional moniker: hyeonsil bulmanhyeong 현실불만형, meaning "due to dissatisfaction with the present". Assault cases overall are on the decrease because Covid has made it hard to have human interaction, but violent crime attributed to unhappiness with life remains stable.

Together, Koo and Ryu cite multiple social factors. Ryu believes that "the gap between the rich and the poor, not to mention emotional paucity and inadequate ways of dealing with social isolation, is making individuals unable to adapt to society".

In Koo's summary, "researchers cite excessive competition in our society, the economic downturn, inequality and too much individualism as the fuel that's created this 'resentment society' or 'anger society'".

The picture is one of a broken country, where many people say they have nothing to live for. In addition, a large segment of the population are enraged that the country doesn't function correctly and that rules don't matter, according to special reportage on anger by the well-regarded magazine Sisain in September.

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Its findings, centered on YouTube comments regarding major Korean news items since president Moon Jae-in took power in 2017, revealed that Koreans have incredible contempt for the 'elite' and prominent entities—law enforcement authorities and civil society organizations included. There is little trust that anyone in charge will do the right thing.

That anger, rather than propelling social change, is being expressed as violence against those who are seen as weak: customer service workers, meek neighbors, small businesses, children and even victims of crime.

"Considerable human libido, both hidden and on full display, for pleasure driven from abusing others is overflowing in [Korean] digital forums," notes the writer of the Sisain report.

In 2017 rage mobilized millions of Koreans to demonstrate against a corrupt government and demand that the president step down. They were angry at the allegations the government may have allowed a private citizen—the president's best friend—to handle state affairs.

Now rage is what might destroy the very same country.

A video by news site Quartz documenting the scale of the 2017 anti-government protests

Cover image: Pixabay

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